MELBOURNE, Australia – Tiger Woods putted for birdie on every hole but the last one. He birdied all the par 5s. And the one time he took on one of the short par 4s at Kingston Heath, he came within inches of reaching the green.
It was just the kind of performance a massive crowd at the Australian Masters expected to see.
Despite a bogey on his final hole when he drove into a tea tree, Woods put together a stress-free round of 6-under 66 on Thursday to share the lead after one round with James Nitties and Branden Grace.
“I bogeyed the last hole and missed two short putts for birdie,” Woods said. “Other than that, it was a pretty good day.”
It felt like more than that to the kind of gallery typically seen only at major championships. Tournament officials said 21,356 people came through the turnstiles, with about 5,000 others giving Kingston Heath a buzz it hasn’t felt in years.
“It was like when I first turned pro and (Greg) Norman used to play,” Cameron Percy said after a 67. “It was like a major, basically.”
Nitties, who easily retained his U.S. PGA Tour card in his rookie season, played behind Woods and quietly joined him in the lead with two birdies over his last three holes.
Grace, a 21-year-old from South Africa, made his first tournament round in Melbourne a memorable one by running off four straight birdies at the turn. He had the lead to himself until a bogey on the 17th.
“I’m up there, and hopefully I can keep playing that way for the next three rounds,” he said.
Woods missed only two fairways in a round that was relatively free of trouble until he pulled his tee shot on the ninth hole, had to chip out of the tea tree into thick rough, did well to bounce it on the green and took two putts from 40 feet. He chose to lay back from the bunkers on several of the short holes, although birdie chances didn’t come by the bushel. Woods hit away from the flag when he didn’t have the right angle; other times, he simply hit poor shots.
“I did a lot of lag putting,” he said.
He made his move toward the end of the round, hitting 3-wood to the 294-yard sixth hole that held its line to the left of the bunkers and came up just short of the green, leaving an easy chip to a foot. After a poor tee shot left him a bad angle to the green on the seventh, Woods hit 8-iron over the corner of trees to 20 feet for another birdie, then hit 8-iron to 7 feet on No. 8 to set up his third straight birdie.
Far more impressive than the golf, however, was the gallery.
Traffic was backed up along Kingston Road outside the club for miles in the hour before Woods teed off.
“I know,” he said. “I was stuck in it, too.”
The tournament has been a sellout for months, and it remains peculiar to see a ticket window at an Australian golf tournament with a sign that says “Sold out.” The cap was at 100,000 tickets for the week – not all of them come through the front gate – and while it was impossible for some 25,000 fans to stay on one hole, whoever couldn’t fit in moved ahead to the next couple of holes.
That turned into a treat for the likes of Seve Benson, playing in the group ahead of Woods, feeling like a rock star himself.
“It was amazing,” Benson said after a 70. “After a couple of holes, you get used to it. But then you realize that they were not on the hole before. They had been there for awhile waiting.”
Thousands headed for the exit when Woods finished, although a fair crowd stuck around for the afternoon, even though the action slowed severely. Mathew Goggin, who played in the final group at Turnberry with Tom Watson, had a 69 to match the best score in the afternoon, when bleachers were half-full.
Most of the crowd followed Adam Scott, slowed by a three-putt bogey from 10 feet in his round of 71. Stuart Appleby also had a 69.
Perhaps the toughest spot was playing behind Woods, as marshals allowed the gallery to stop in the middle of crossing areas so that the fans entirely circled every green on which Woods, defending champion Rod Pampling and Craig Parry were putting.
Parry holed a 50-foot putt on the fourth and shot a 70, while Pampling had a 71.
Among those in the gallery was Woods’ mother, Kultida, who usually only travels to Augusta National and Sherwood Country Club for her son’s tournament in December.
Percy and Doug Holloway were at 67, while Greg Chalmers was in the group at 68.
Geoff Ogilvy, the only other player besides Woods in the top 50 at Kingston Heath, took double bogey on his final hole for a 72.
Nitties already was fired up about coming home to Australia, especially after a successful rookie campaign in which he tied for fourth in the FBR Open to get his year started right. Then came a week of practice, with the Heath buzzing over Woods.
“Tiger’s here, so it’s huge,” he said. “I love it. You want to do well in front of your local crowd.”